Statement of Barbara Boxer
Hearing on Oversight of Federal Risk Management and Emergency Planning Programs to Prevent and Address Chemical Threats, Including the Events Leading Up to the Explosions in West, TX and Geismar, LA
June 27, 2013

What brings us here today is the tragic loss of life and injuries caused by a chemical explosion in West, Texas. After we announced the hearing, another tragic chemical explosion occurred in Louisiana. We must look at why these tragedies and others occur and what we can do to help prevent such disasters.

Let's walk through what happened at West.

On April 17th, a massive explosion and fire destroyed a fertilizer distribution plant and caused widespread destruction. At least 14 people died, hundreds of people were injured, and homes, businesses, and three unoccupied schools were damaged or destroyed.

An owner of a local business said:

"It was like a war zone last night. It's like a nightmare, something you would see in a movie." (Waco Tribune, April 18, 2013)

Just two weeks ago, another deadly tragedy occurred in Louisiana, when more than one hundred people were injured and two workers lost their lives. In that case, a vapor cloud of flammable petroleum gases exploded at a petrochemical refinery, releasing more than 62,000 pounds of toxic chemicals and causing a serious fire.

In August 2012, a failed pipe at a refinery in Richmond, California, released flammable petroleum gases and formed a vapor cloud that ignited. Six workers were injured, and thousands of people from nearby residential areas went to local hospitals for medical treatment.

I want to express my deep condolences to the first responders, workers, and others who lost their lives or were injured in chemical disasters in all these communities and others across the nation.

Federal safety and health officials must use all available tools, including - and most important - updated Risk Management Plans which are required under the law, the best training methods, and new technologies. Lives are at stake and action must be taken now.

Our federal risk management and emergency response laws were written after two tragic disasters in the mid-1980s. In 1984, a facility in Bhopal, India, released a toxic chemical that killed over 2,000 people.

The following year, a facility in West Virginia released thousands of pounds of dangerous chemicals into a nearby community, which sent more than 100 people to the hospital.

In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to enhance planning to address chemical disasters. And in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress required risk management planning to help save people's lives at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals.

In the days following the West, Texas, disaster, I wrote to the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requesting information about the explosion, the Risk Management Program, and safeguards under existing law. The CSB replied to me in a letter stating that:

"The CSB considers the West explosion to be among the most serious U.S. chemical incidents affecting the public in many decades." (CSB Letter, May 17, 2013)

This should be a wakeup call for all of us, and we must take steps to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. Here's the good news: under existing law, EPA can strengthen safety at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals.

The CSB has already identified problems that may have contributed to the disaster in West, Texas, including large amounts of combustible material stored in the same areas as wooden containers that hold ammonium nitrate, which can explode when heated.

The CSB also found that the West, Texas, facility was not required to install sprinklers or other fire suppression systems - and that EPA's risk management program does not require special handling for reactive or explosive materials like ammonium nitrate.

I look forward to the CSB's final reports on these recent explosions and to the adoption of any recommendations that CSB makes to help prevent other tragic explosions and loss of life.

According to the CSB, roughly 72 percent of its recommendations have already been adopted. But that means 28 percent of its recommendations have not yet been adopted. EPA, other federal agencies, and industry must act quickly to adopt safety measures that can save lives.

In 2002, the CSB recommended that EPA strengthen the Risk Management Program by including ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. I want to thank the CSB for its dedicated service and for recognizing the need for action on this issue to protect the American people.

Unfortunately, EPA has not yet acted on CSB's 2002 recommendation. Today I am calling on EPA to adopt this critical safeguard and to report back to me on this request within the next two weeks.

Acting on this safety measure is critically important, because there are thousands of facilities across the nation that handle ammonium nitrate, and we do not know this dangerous chemical and we know this dangerous chemical must be handled safely. If it is, disasters will be avoided.

As we review what happened in the recent explosions, we must make safety the highest priority so that we can enhance protections for workers and other people in our communities.

Local authorities can play a key role in enhancing these safety protections. Mr. Randall Sawyer is here from my home state of California to testify on behalf of the Contra Costa County's Health Department.

I look forward to hearing from him today, as well as the other witnesses, on the steps that EPA, state and local authorities, and industry can take to prevent and eliminate chemical disasters. We don't need new legislation - we need action.

I want to thank Tim White for his heartfelt letter and for his dedication to call for enhanced safety measures so that other families do not have to suffer the same loss his family did.